A public bench makes a fascinating study. Having previously used a park bench as an object for my earlier assignments and exercises, I decided to continue exploring the theme in the final assignment.
The bench attracted me because of its long history, universal existence, and its many uses and interpretations.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannia, benches were used widely by the Romans as seats and were wide enough to be used for sleeping and eating from. They “were the most common form of seating in medieval halls at a time when a chair was a rare luxury reserved for those of high status.” The civic benches at plazas in the14th Century Tuscany were used for theatre performances and tribunal hearings, which conveyed “the sense of civic action and stimulated popular use.”
Its long-standing history has secured the bench a prominent place in the everyday people’s life all around the world.
In many ways the bench represents a part of our shared cultural heritage that is instantly understood across the world.
A bench is often used as part of the visual language to convey certain feelings and emotions – depending on the context they could range from loneliness to love and romance. Its regular appearance in visual and verbal clichés is in itself a fascinating area of study.
A bench as a public space has an endless variety of uses. It can be a home for homeless or a quiet spot to enjoy a quick lunch. It can be a place to meet with friends or a part of someone’s daily routine. It is one of the few places where social division can be played down and where talking to a stranger is still acceptable.
It is a meeting place for strangeness and familiarity, similarity and difference, ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, public and private.
Not surprisingly, the use of public spaces has been the subject of many academic studies and research projects, some of which are mentioned below.
The first theoretical concept that helped me to develop my thinking on the subject is the idea of the city as an ‘ecology.’ Kevin Lynch (1981:119) described human settlements as a ‘complex ecology.’ This understanding is built on seeing the urban spaces as living and constantly developing. A strong connection between the space and its occupants is the key to the ‘city ecology’ concept. As Kevin Lynch commented, ‘most utopias fail to keep space and society simultaneously in mind.’
Building on the ecology of human settlements, a concept of the city making as a social process is helpful in this discourse. In her most recent work ‘City by Design’ (2013:1), Fran Tonkiss describes how people shape, create and re-create their environment day by day.
Applying the ecology of a place to the assignment, public benches can be seen as the living spaces that change from one moment to the other depending on who and how is using them. These living spaces are created and re-created with every passing moment, with every new situation and every new visitor.
It seems fitting to describe the public bench as a ‘situational place,’ a kind of on-going theatrical performance, with the visitors and passer-byes being the actors. These situational bench-places ‘emerge and vanish with the performative interactions that create them’ (2010; 44).
This is evident when trying to ‘capture the right moment’ with the camera as there is a constant flow of emerging and vanishing individual moments-performances.
My exploration of the ways people experience public spaces started with observing and taking pictures of some strangers - individuals and groups of people - using public benches. Can the photography help us to understand their experiences? If so, what can we learn?
From my experience, observing people in public places has similar qualities and is as engaging as watching a theatre performance. A bench helps to create a suitable and well-defined stage and there are plenty of actors who appear to be willing to perform.
The shooting angle and the composition of the image above were used to maximise the sense of a staged performance. Using a 70 mm lens helped me to stay relatively unnoticed. The lines created by the pavement slabs are leading the eye to the bench where the real life situation is played out in front of the viewer. We observe some strangers sharing the same space: some are eating in silence, or drinking and chatting, whilst others are emerged in ‘people-watching.’
The bold angle of the shot, the presence of the wall and the geometrical lines leading up to it - all of these make the viewer (quite mercilessly) a part of the picture putting them right in front of the observed. This creates slightly uneasy dynamics and adds some tension to the scene. It seems that the tables (or benches!) may turn anytime as the occupants of the benches may switch their attention to the viewer and become the observers themselves at any moment.
Lunchtime city raises a question whether a public place could still be seen as a space where spontaneous social interaction between strangers takes place. The inhabitants of Lunchtime city share the benches but their experiences of the present moment seem very different. Their facial expressions caught by the camera range from (what appear to be) loneliness to boredom, and from disapproval to content.
Lunchtime city points that where there is a potential for a spontaneous social interaction, there is a chance of meeting ‘the Other’ and a possibility of withdrawal or misunderstanding, conflict or friction.
The theme of interaction and withdrawal is explored further in the Looking down image. Shot from the gallery of a shopping centre in central Cambridge, it captures an everyday situation that can be observed in any urban centre around the globe.
Our daily lives are full of the fleeting moments like this one – all compacted together until they become just a kind of background noise. It is only when an individual moment is frozen in time and is observed closely, it reflects back a mirror image of our modern urban way of life and how it affects individuals who are caught in it.
Then we recognise how the urban pressures make people look, feel and behave. We are able to read the signs of their body language, the direction of their gaze, their postures, the way they shield themselves from the surroundings with various mobile devices – often choosing not to see, hear or communicate with their immediate environment.
As M.Grimaldi and P.Sulis noted in the context of modern public places, ‘it is paradoxical that in the very moment when everyone can potentially reach every different place or being, in contact with numerous cultural realities, cities instead deny their original attitude and become places of avoidance.’(2009:262)
Still, as long as the opportunity for a contact exists, there is a possibility that it would be used. As Storper and Venables pointed out, ‘being close enough literally to each other allows visual contact and emotional closeness, the bases for building human relationships.’
A deeper understanding of the ways that people use and experience public spaces is at the heart of this project. In this context the discussion on the issues of identity and culture, and similarity and difference is helpful. The focus on identity and diversity highlights that people might experience and use urban places differently, as observed in the images Lunchtime city and Looking down.
Looking at the Facing away image, even the same individual may use the same space in various ways depending on their needs, emotional state and changing situations and ‘in line with their own shifting subjectivity.’(2000:42)